Sunday, June 28, 2009

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Dale Wasserman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a play before it was a hugely successful hit movie - originally Kirk Douglas had Jack Nicholson's part, Gene Wilder was Billy Bibbitt and, get this, Ed Ames played The Chief.

But the film version, in 1975, not only became one of only three films in American film history to ever sweep the Big Five at the Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), but ingrained itself firmly on our consciousness. Can a remounting of the original play possibly have the power of that movie?

It sure can! "Cuckoo's Nest" is fantastic theater, giving us glimpses into characters that were de-emphasized in the movie. We spoke to SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English several months ago when they were beginning to talk about doing this show and his only reservation was: "Where will we find a seven-foot tall Indian?" No problem. Michael Torres gives a magnificent reading as Chief Brombden, managing to grab our hearts as he steals the show from the rest of a fantastic cast.

Hansford Prince gives Randall McMurphy a less manic than Nicholson but equally charged performance, and while Susi Damilano has little of Louise Fletcher's Academy-Award winning evil-to-the-core nature, Damilano makes it perfectly clear that she's the boss and that's the way it's gonna be, boys. The ensemble of patients on the ward is excellent to a man and woman, especially Louis Parnell as Harding and Patrick Alarpone as the frightened Billy Bibbitt who wakes up for one joy-filled moment, which turns out to be his last. Madeline H.D. Brown is the totally trashy Candy Starr who is surprisingly wholesome (she has 'Mom and Dad' tattooed on her arm, f'Gawd's sake).

You all know the story already: the ending will be no surprise. But keep your eyes on the Chief in his brilliant and moving soliloquies. If the Hollywood movie was about McMurphy, the arc of the play is all about the Chief. Michael Torres is fantastic: he's big, very big. "Cuckoo's Nest" turns out to be the Chief's redemption story and we can't wait for him to bust out through that window.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. If it seems that we are handing out Four Star reviews right and left, since the new rating system went into place (see explanation on right), it is simply because this has been a memorable season for San Francisco theater. Bill English's direction and set, the excellent ensemble acting performances and the power of Ken Kesey's original novel all make it an exciting evening of theater. The show shines in an intimate setting like SF Playhouse.

And the BANGLE OF PRAISE has to be for Michael Torres. We never knew The Chief had it in him. What a performance.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Sept. 5


Ann said...

I saw the show off-Broadway long ago, I saw the movie, I read the book. I never saw or read anything more fabulous than the performance today, Saturday 7/12 at the SF Theater. I'm the first one who stood up to applaud and I'm still catching my breath. Got home and wrote to friends to see it, review it, be grateful for this quality of theater. BRAVO!

Ann said...

p.s. Every actor inhabited their role, big or smaller, from McMurphy and Ratchett to the young nurse. The staging was spare and perfect, the special effects were extraordinary.